Editor's Note, June 2023

Written by Marian Starkey | Published: June 12, 2023

We were pleased when we saw Harvard University Prof. Naomi Oreskes’ opinion piece, “Eight Billion People in the World Is a Crisis, Not an Achievement,” in Scientific American in March. I immediately contacted her for permission to reprint it, which she readily granted—it’s on page 10 of this issue.

What I didn’t expect (though perhaps should have) was a response to the piece a few weeks later, published in The Atlantic, scolding Prof. Oreskes for scolding people for having children (which she did not do). The authors of that op-ed work at the Breakthrough Institute, a think-tank that “identifies and promotes technological solutions to environmental and human development challenges.” I think we’d all be curious to know which technological solutions they’ve identified for feeding 10 billion or more people while halting the environmental consequences that already result from our agricultural practices used to feed 8 billion people—carbon and methane emissions, deforestation, fresh water overdraw, soil erosion, fertilizer runoff, etc.

One of those consequences of expanding agriculture to feed more people—deforestation—is presently eating up the world’s largest tropical carbon sink: the Congo Basin in west-central Africa. The region boasts the second largest tropical forest in the world, after the Amazon, and the largest intact forest landscape. It’s also a biodiversity hotspot—one out of every five species on Earth is found there. As subsistence farming, expanding settlements, and commercial activities encroach on the “Lungs of Africa,” a key mitigation tool in the fight against climate change is being destroyed.

Population Connection Communications Manager Olivia Nater writes about the environmental significance of the Congo Basin and about the various drivers of forest loss there in her feature article which begins on page 12. It surprised me to learn that most (84 percent) of the forest loss in the Congo Basin is due to small-scale subsistence farming, which is directly tied to population growth. More people needing food, after all, requires (in the absence of heightened agricultural productivity) more farmland.

We all know that unsustainable levels of consumption among the world’s wealthiest people led us to the planetary predicament we find ourselves in now, facing down a plethora of environmental tipping points that will be catastrophic when breached, in ways we can only hypothesize. There’s no way around it: Wealthy people the world over must drastically reduce their (our) per capita consumption.

But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the fact that middle-income countries are projected to grow from 6 billion today to 7 billion by 2050 and have growing middle classes who (rightfully) strive to increase their consumption to pave the way for a better quality of life. Or that low-income countries, where it’s critical that per capita consumption rises in order to meet everyone’s basic human rights, are projected to add 600 million people by 2050. Population growth is by no means the entire story when it comes to deforestation and climate change, but it is an integral part and one that we can’t afford to overlook, especially if we are truly committed to a more equitable global distribution of resources.